by Ashrey Gupta, Ishita Sukul, and Jack Tran
The pandemic of the coronavirus that started on March 11, 2020, has changed the lives of millions of people worldwide, and as COVID-19 cases surge, the state of nations tends to get even worse. However, human trafficking exists as another hidden issue impacting a myriad of Americans’ lives and of those all around the world. Human rights organizations see a 185% increase in human trafficking cases amid the COVID-19 pandemic, being another problem taking its toll on America’s most vulnerable. Many people under the age of 18 are facing such conditions, especially since the rise of the global pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated numerous human lives, educational systems, and the global economy. The risks of human trafficking have increased, given the enormous financial hardship on families, the mass movement of people, and the closing of schools.
The abomination of slavery seemed to be a thing of the past fifty years ago. However, history seems to repeat itself. Human trafficking is once more a sickening fact in today’s world. Men, women, and kids are being trafficked and abused around the planet at the moment: 2.4 million people are trafficked into forced labor around the world, with 600,000 to 800,000 crossing borders annually, and 12,000 children working as slaves on cocoa plantations in geographical regions. According to the Department of Homeland Security, human trafficking exploits a person and “involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.” In a society where children are the most vulnerable, this form of modern slavery has ultimately transformed into a billion-dollar illegal industry. It is unlikely to actually find a consensus on the variety of scope of the difficulty, but irrespective of the numbers, the very fact remains that human trafficking could be a major problem that’s only getting worse. What counts is that every number reflects the loss of a person’s life. It occurs on every continent and in almost every country: whether one sleeps in a source, destination, or transit point for human trafficking, no one can claim to be completely resistant to its effects.
A few words about human trafficking
Before we go deep into the problem created by the COVID-19 Pandemic, let us try to understand the basic issues caused by human trafficking. The most common types of human trafficking are forced labor, debt bondage, and sexual exploitation is the most common. Sex trafficking is forced participation in commercial sex acts that mostly involve women and children. Forced labor trafficking is illegally forcing individuals to perform labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. Bonded labor or also known as debt bondage is when people give themselves into slavery as security against a loan or when they inherit a debt from a relative. Common industries for labor trafficking include domestic work, manufacturing, and agriculture, while common venues for sex trafficking include massage parlors and strip joints, according to the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, one of the nation’s largest providers of services to survivors of human trafficking. In the year 2019, the state of California in the United States had the greatest number of reported cases in the U.S, according to the data given by the National Human Trafficking Hotline. This is extremely concerning, as California’s reported cases were similar to the number of human trafficking cases in countries like China, South Korea, Japan, India, and African countries.
According to Eric Wright, more than half of the homeless youth in the city of Atlanta, Georgia, have experienced human trafficking with minorities and LGBT being the more likely target. An anonymous survey shows that roughly 60% of the homeless LGBT had experienced trafficking and nearly 58% of the respondents had been homeless less than six months, while roughly a quarter reported being homeless for more than a year. By now one must be asking themselves, “Why so many cases?”, it’s simply because traffickers will target vulnerable teens and in exchange for a place to stay, they’re forced to do work with their IDs confiscated to make sure they can’t “steal or run away”. What makes a person an easy target for human trafficking? Some people think being good-looking is one of them, but actually, being vulnerable and desperate is what traffickers usually look for the most. According to Enrile, anyone can fall victim to human trafficking. However, vulnerable populations who have little social and legal protection are the most at risk. Some people even agreed to be trafficked due to their living circumstances. Children who have experienced childhood trauma or any form of mental illness in the past also have a higher risk of being trafficked. Traumas include incarceration of a close family member, mental illness or substance abuse, domestic violence, and sexual, physical, or psychological abuse. These factors make them 2.5 times more likely to experience trafficking while homeless.
Taking advantage of the global virus, criminal enterprises have evolved in regard to involving more stay-at-home lockdowns and travel bans, and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime warns that criminals will continue to utilize the pandemic as a sly opportunity to exploit those economically disaffected and struggling. Unfortunately, crime networks are looking to further exploit and profit off of impacted individuals, becoming ever more creative in unlawful actions.
Governments are diverting resources to address the pandemic and the police have new tasks for the enforcement of lockdowns and social distancing, affecting their normal operational capacity and on-site police and labor inspections. Thus, proactive inspections of suspect sites and cases have reduced, establishing a present the danger that investigating criminals administering human exploitation will soon become a lower priority. As a result, the number of criminal arrests, investigations, and convictions, are impacted, leading to an environment of practical impunity where traffickers can operate with lower risks of detection and conviction.
COVID-19 is on the track to creating a new class of victims. In the United States, young women who cannot afford to pay their rents, or are barely surviving, are being subject to sextortion, an act of illegal sex, by their male landlords. According to a nation-wide survey by the U.S.-based National Fair Housing Alliance, 13% of the one hundred housing organizations have seen an increase in sexual harassment complaints ever since the pandemic started in 2019. Justice Department’s Sexual Harassment in Housing Initiative, a law enforcement initiative in the United States, was created to address crimes derived from the rise of human trafficking during the coronavirus spread. As the American community evolves and changes, many criminals have taken advantage of the “at-home” stay to eventually set new definitions regarding the immense industry of human trafficking.
There are fears that COVID-19 is making the task of identifying victims of human trafficking even more difficult. The main reasons include the fact that trafficking victims are often exploited in illegal, informal, or unregulated sectors, such as petty crime, sex industry, domestic settings, drug cultivation and trafficking, agriculture, and construction. In addition, the lack of willingness by the victims themselves to report their victimization or their inability to do so, and limited law enforcement capacities to detect this crime makes helping victims extremely strenuous to do.
Due to the pandemic, human trafficking victims are also more exposed to contracting the virus, have less access to healthcare to ensure their recovery, and have less equipped to prevent it. As a result of countries adjusting their top priorities during the pandemic, essential operations and organizations to support victims have become a great obstacle. The global pandemic allowed space for dramatic increases in unemployment and reductions in income, emphasizing that a significant number of people who were already vulnerable find themselves in even more precarious situations and circumstances. From the garment industry, agriculture and farming, to manufacturing and domestic work, millions of people who were living in subsistence conditions have ultimately lost their wages. Those who continue to work in these sectors, where human trafficking is frequently detected, also face more exploitation because of the need to lower costs due to economic difficulties, as well as due to fewer controls by the authorities.
Along with the economy falling into shambles, restrictions placed on the movement of victims became common features of trafficking in persons. Lockdowns and confinement in homes have reinforced the isolation of victims, drastically reducing any chances of them being removed from such exploitative environments. Other additional obstacles such as difficulty accessing services, assistance, and support, due to regulations on confinement and related closure of NGOs and government offices, have marked the rise of human trafficking cases. Isolation and social distancing disrupt any access to informal support networks, while also worsening the victims’ mental health. The closure of government services and significant changes in the way they are administered, eventually made identified victims, who were already being supported by community groups, may face challenges.
In the effort to halt the global spread of COVID-19 and protect vulnerable lives, strict control measures are in place in many countries at a scale previously unseen in peacetime. Thus, people should not overlook the real and concrete risks that this unprecedented situation brings for vulnerable individuals and groups, who are not always very visible in our societies. A much-needed focus on alleviating the economic impact of the global pandemic should not and must not exclude the disadvantaged and underprivileged. Recovering from the pandemic will offer a unique opportunity to look at deeply entrenched inequalities in our economic development model that feed gender-based violence, marginalization, exploitation, and trafficking in persons.
Human trafficking is often prevented in some ways, the primary and most vital of which is to: if you’re within the United States and suspect someone is also a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or call 911 to report an emergency. Whether or not they’re residents of the United States, victims of human trafficking are eligible for care and immigration assistance.
Women of all ages can fall victim to this slave trade, particularly young females ranging from ages 14 to 33. Trafficking can occur in both suburban and derelict neighborhoods, though it is most prevalent in the more rough neighborhoods alongside street prostitution. In their article “When a Predator Attacks: Street-Smart Self-Defense for Women,” Global Security Experts Inc recommends women avoid traveling alone and always be aware of their surroundings. Furthermore, in an instance in which another individual is approaching or has laid hands on a woman, it is recommended they “create a scene by shouting, screaming, and yelling for help as loudly as [possible]…this may throw the thug off guard and cause him to step back for a moment, providing the precious seconds [needed] to escape” (“When a Predator Attacks: Street-Smart Self-Defense for Women”). Protective tactics to escape an attacker include the following: a “kick to the groin, kick to the knee, neck and/or throat punch, eye gouge, [and] upward hand thrust to the nose.” Another safety precaution includes the purchase of a kitty keychain, which is a self-defense artifact designed to fit around knuckles that will then control the two sharp ears attached to pierce into the attacker’s skin if necessary. To become further educated and experienced in self-defense, there are an expansive variety of classes available for anyone to enroll in both online and in person.
When supporting surviving victims, it is incredibly important to not victim-blame, no one should ever criticize a victim for their decisions or lack of judgment that landed them in traumatic sexual exploitation. Victim-blaming will cause the victim to believe that the abuse was ultimately their fault, despite the fact that it never is––and never will be. Blaming the victim will cause an experience that should be handled with (professional) support to be invalidated, and may consequently contribute and/or lead to thoughts of suicide. The Center for Prevention of Abuse advises that survivors should be handled with patience and “[communication] that [people] care about their safety, that they do not deserve to be hurt, and that the abuse is not their fault.” The Center also informs that, in consolidation, “do not feel the need to be an expert…do connect them to trained people who can help [available] at 309-691-0551 or the 24/7 crisis hotline at 1- 800-559-SAFE [or] at 1-888-373-7888.”
Appropriately reacting to human trafficking, whether that means staying aware of others or protecting yourself, is tremendously vital today. Recognizing and handling this issue might just save a life, including yours.
Human trafficking is the result of the failure of societies and economies throughout the world to protect the most vulnerable and enforce rights under national and federal laws. Hence, it is the duty of nations, including the United States, to ensure the safety of its citizens and provide for the general benefit of the public, hopefully reversing the effects of the sudden rise of human trafficking during the COVID-19 pandemic.
About the Authors:
Ashrey Gupta is a sophomore at Johns Creek High School located in Johns Creek, Georgia, and a member of the Physicians for Human Rights organization working towards the advancement of human rights in the field of trafficking.
Ishita Sukul is a freshman at Johns Creek High School located in Johns Creek, Georgia, and a member of the Physicians for Human Rights organization along with a few other human rights organizations working towards the preservation of human rights for all.
Jack Tran is a freshman at Johns Creek High School located in Johns Creek, Georgia, and a member of the Physicians for Human Rights organization working towards raising awareness on human trafficking.